Homeland Security

Visa Waiver Program now includes daily database check

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A change to how Customs and Border Protection vets applicants for the Visa Waiver Program is helping prevent a potential blind spot in the process, the agency's chief told a House panel on March 1.

CBP began implementing a number of procedural changes to the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) in January to comply with the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015. For instance, travelers from Syria, Iran and Iraq are no longer eligible for the program and must apply for a visa instead. In mid-February, the State Department added Libya, Somalia and Yemen to the restricted list.

A visa requires applicants to undergo a more extensive security check, and the new ESTA form contains more detailed questions about Visa Waiver Program applicants.

CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske told the House Appropriations Committee that previously CBP only conducted an initial review of Visa Waiver Program applications, but now applicants "are vetted every 24 hours against a series of databases" to ensure they don't show up on one later, Kerlikowske said.

The screening is done by CBP's National Targeting Center, the agency's primary point of contact between the Terrorist Screening Database and agents in CBP field offices and other government agencies.

Kerlikowske told lawmakers that he has requested funding for an additional 40 people for the center, which "is a real jewel" in CBP's arsenal.

However, he came under fire for lowering the proposed number of Border Patrol agents in fiscal 2017 by 300 from fiscal 2016 levels, with a suggested target of 21,070 in 2017.

Kerlikowske said the staffing levels were more realistic and the savings would allow his agency to invest in modernizing radio communications gear and vehicles. CBP wants to invest $54 million in its tactical voice communications system, the largest system of its kind in the country. Officials have said much of the equipment is beyond its useful life expectancy and must be replaced.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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